In Defense of Gmail

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Occasional Reason contributor Declan McCullagh–he's the author of the cover story about privacy in our forthcoming June issue–detects an anti-technology impulse among the critics of Google's Gmail. Still in its testing phase, Gmail is a free service that "offers 1GB of storage in exchange for displaying automated advertisements based on the text of an e-mail message." He writes:

The objections lodged against Gmail are telling, because they illuminate two different views about how to respond to new technologies. The protechnology view says customers of a company should be allowed to make up their own mind and that government regulation should be a last resort. Privacy fundamentalists, on the other hand, insist that new services they believe to be harmful should be banned, even if consumers are clamoring for them.

"Whether it's on this issue or a host of other issues, the de facto position of many privacy groups–EPIC being the lead–is antitechnology," said Rob Atkinson, vice president of the Progressive Policy Institute. "It's to shut new IT technologies down before we use them."

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  1. I have to wonder what Google would do about someone sending and receiving email using PGP or containing only compresed attachments so as to render only the subject line available to plain text processing?

    This would allow the user to enjoy the large storage space available but protect their privacy in the bargain. I didn’t see anything in their agreement that would prevent this.

    Anyone tried this?

  2. Who cares, Gmail isn’t a public right. It is a private service and in order to get that service, one must agree to the terms of the service. WTF ever happened to individual choice?

    As for using PGP, if they let you, go for it. I don’t use Gmail, but I am sure others have tried PGP.

  3. I, for one, couldn’t care less about the privacy of my email. Most of it is junk any way. But the article linked to is a text book case for bias and lack of honesty:

    “The protechnology view says ..”

    “Privacy fundamentalists ..”

    interesting choice of words.

  4. What’s the big deal? My boyfriend has a weblog, which has a comments site offered free by “Quicktopic.” In exchange for the free comment board, Quicktopic puts advertisements up in the margins of the comment pages. Everybody who posts on the site (mainly his friends, discussing various sci-fi related topics when they’re supposed to be working) knows that this is not a private forum, and we always get a kick out of seeing how the advertisements change in relation to what is posted.

    Maybe some folks would complain that the “privacy” of the posters is being compromised, but the posters all know better than to send personal secrets out over the Internet anyway.

  5. Most of the people with privacy concerns seem to be really objecting to the commercial aspects of the technology. Spam filters do the same exact thing. No one seems to be objecting to Yahoo!. Just today, for instance I received a message from my girlfriend that was scanned for spam triggers by Yahoo! then had an ad placed at the bottom for for hotjobs.com. The only difference with Gmail is that the computer would decide if hotjobs.com was the best thing to advertise based on what we were discussing, or if somthing else would be.

    Though one thought does occur to me… A lot of my emails are short notes, and my signature line takes up a good portion of a lot of messages. I wonder what Gmail would decide to advertise to some who’s message ended in the line:
    “You’re a gentleman,” they used to say to him. “You shouldn’t have gone murdering people with a hatchet; that’s no occupation for a gentleman.”

  6. Some people have been invoking the sender’s right not to have his mail used in ways he doesn’t approve of, e.g., to trigger ads on the recipient’s site. I think this is just an argument of convenience, since I’ve never heard “privacy advocates” arguing that email forwarding (for example) is evil, but it’s one that you’ll hear. The people using it realize that “I won’t let you use this service because I want to protect your privacy” is a pathetic argument, so they’re saying instead, “I won’t let you use this service because you’re violating my privacy when you use it to read the mail I sent you.”

    Sending only binary attachments would probably work if you want to use GMail without seeing the ads; I doubt you’d even need to encrypt them, as long as they didn’t look like ASCII text. Unless more than a tiny fraction of users did this, I doubt that Google would care.

  7. I have a right to privacy. I also have the right to sell my privacy.

  8. I’m amazed by how many people who should know better think Gmail’s advertising model is doing anything new with regard to privacy. Hotmail, Yahoo Mail, AOL, Earthlink, you name it, already have an army of computers that go through every single one of your email messages, looking for viruses in the attachments, stripping out malicious scripts in the text itself, indexing the text–by “reading” it–so you can search through it, and “reading” the message against a list of words and phrases to decide whether it’s spam or not.

    Google’s just doing the same “reading” against another list of words and phrases to decide what ads get shown alongside your message. Big whoop.

    If you’re concerned about big, scary computers pawing through your email, you shouldn’t be using a web mail service at all. In fact, you shouldn’t be sending or receiving unencrypted email through any servers that you don’t personaly own and control.

    If you’re really concerned about privacy, you should be exchanging encryption keys with all your correspondents, encrypting every single message, and never, ever be using webmail or other server-side tools to read or compose it. Ever. Otherwise, your email (and likely over 99.9% of all email) really has no privacy whatsoever.

    The only vaguely potentially troubling new thing about Gmail is their reserved right to retain your messages indefinitely. In practice, they’re probably not doing it. At most, they’re probably only keeping the records of word-to-ad matches used on your mail in order to refine the efficacy of the ads.

    And frankly, AOL, Yahoo, MSN et al probably have no more or less of a data retention policy in place. What they have on backup tapes and hard drives deep in their data centers is probably a mixed bag and I doubt they have any easy way to determine whether or not they still have copies of your old mail lying around somewhere. At least Google spent some time thinking about it and decided to cover themselves in their user license aagreement.

    It’s probably worthwhile to press ISPs and webmail providers to put their data retention policies in writing, and it would be a Good Thing for privacy to press them to keep that data retention short-term and limited in scope. But special concern over Gmail? I’d expect it from nontechnical consumers who aren’t aware of how email and webmail already work, but not from people who are.

  9. Anon: It’s an opinion piece, and the “Perspectives” heading indicates. It doesn’t HAVE to be objective.

  10. I’ve been using a mail.com address for a long time now, but it wasn’t until recently (when I started paying for Pop 3) that I realized the company is based in Hong Kong.

    Are there communist party officials out there sifting through my e-mail?

    I can only hope.

  11. customers of a company should be allowed to make up their own mind”

    This is fine in theory – but problems can arise when a system becomes ubiquitous.

    For instance – if nearly everyone the world started using Gmail then Google could potentially alter the product in a way that would cut out the minority who didn’t… forcing everyone to accept the terms of the product or do without.

    I recall reading that when cable television came out in the 70s people were excited about the potential for commercial free content. After all, just like public television, cable tv is user supported… who would expect commercials?

    Unfortunately, the cable companies quickly found out that they could run commercials and still keep customers… further they moved their tier of commercial free content one-step above entry level users. Therefore, if you want your commercial free HBO you have to pay extra for it on top of what you pay for your basic.

    It is a crummy system but the American consumers do not seem to mind.

    I guess you could then argue what harm is being done? People are satisfied with their cable… despite crappy content, commercials, horrible customer support, etcetera…

    I’m sure there are other examples of system or service monopolies which may or may not harm the customer… Microsoft comes to mind… so does auto and health insurance.

  12. The Gmail flap doesn’t indicate anything new. It’s just a repeat of what happens when any company becomes recognized as a major industry player; those who view technology as a fundamentally destructive force start shouting against every new development. If Ralph Nader hasn’t joined the chorus yet, he will.

    There’s a passage in Atlas Shrugged where Hank Rearden’s brother Phillip confronts him at the steel factory, and Hank can see that Phillip is deathly afraid that his brother could easily use the factory equipment to destroy him — an option that Phillip would consider, but Hank never would.

    Heaven knows which other free e-mail services are scanning your messages and just not bothering to tell you about it.

  13. A further comment on people’s basic assumptions about technology… I remember reading a Usenet post some years ago that claimed auto manufacturers designed fuel gauges to vary the apparent fuel consumption rate in different parts of the dial and thereby raise gasoline demand (If it doesn’t make sense to you, don’t worry). As an engineering student at the time, I remember thinking how awfully depressing it was that anyone would think auto engineers have no better use for their time than to play mind games through the fuel gauge.

  14. I’m alarmed by the letter at http://www.epic.org/privacy/gmail/google5.3.04.html, which says “California Penal Code ?631 […] prohibits any person from attempting to read or learn the contents or meaning of any message without the consent of all parties to the communication.” That suggests that if my sister sends me e-mail saying that she’s getting married, and I tell my girlfriend, I may have broken the law (because my girlfriend has learned the contents and meaning of that message with my sister’s consent). Is that really the law in California?

    At a glance at http://caselaw.lp.findlaw.com/cacodes/pen/630-637.9.html, it sorta looks like it is. Sheee-it.

  15. “irilyth”:

    It doesn’t sound that way to me, but the statute you quote is still pretty interesting. It hinges on the definition of “person” under that law. If a corporation or other legal entity constitues a person, then it seems to follow that spam and virus filtering undertaken by a third party (like an ISP or webmail provider) is a violation. Cool!

  16. “anon”,
    Even if we overlook the lack of any mention of file-sharing in the linked article, your remark is nonsense. The basic peer-to-peer concept is great, and there are companies called Groove Networks and Skype that market it for legitimate purposes.

    OTOH, the belief that you have a right to obtain media products on terms not accepted by the authors is immoral. It doesn’t matter what technology you use to get it.

  17. Mark:
    “Anon: It’s an opinion piece”

    Yes, I’m aware of that. But those ‘pro-technology’ folks are anti-technology when said technology might threaten corporations’ profits (e.g., file-sharing technology). So, to say that they are pro-technology is dishonest, dead-wrong, and discredits the entire article.

  18. Wait just a cotton-pickin’ minute! You mean ANYONE can read this?!?!?!!

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